Ryan offers a thought provoking exercise for your next long run inspired by some of the fastest runners in our sport.
Coming into the finish line in 2nd place after 100 leg-crushing miles at the Javelina 100 in October 2021 was a highlight of my running career thus far. Winning an elusive Golden Ticket for the Western States Endurance Run felt surreal, beautiful, and offered a wonderful sense of personal accomplishment. However, as I think about my race experience, what I am most proud of is the person and the runner I have become leading up to and during the race.
Javelina was the first trail race where I fully expressed my identity as a gay, queer person. I ran the event in a DIY rainbow-embroidered crop top, rainbow-printed gray shorts, and my boyfriend, who was dressed as a drag queen, crewed me all day. Throughout the duration of the race, I thought to myself “I feel so happy … I love feeling free and expressive … and I am ready to race for that Golden Ticket.” As I crossed the finish later that night, I smiled, danced, and embraced my crew as I held up a dirty Pride flag.
As I reflect on that experience now, I think to myself, “What was different about this race? What allowed me to perform so well?” Come to find out, there was a lot: I was my whole self on the Javelina race course––and I didn’t shy away from any part of who I am. I unlocked both my performance and my happiness by calibrating my self-expression to my values. Or as I said at the finish line, “I’m here, I’m queer, and this is my year.”
The Downside of Living and Racing Inauthentically
Addie Bracy, pro ultra-trail runner for Nike Trail, shared her thoughts with me on how authenticity leads to better performance—in racing and in daily life. Addie, who identifies as a gay runner, spent her collegiate career in the closet and often not feeling comfortable in her own skin. “Whenever you feel like you cannot be fully authentic, or accepted, it is hard for you to have personal courage … it is hard to be confident in who you are … and it takes a lot of energy. You become bogged down,” Addie said. The more she wrestled with her identity early in her running career, the more negatively it affected her race results. “You cannot selectively numb yourself or many amazing parts of yourself will also be held back such as race performance, personal relationships, and more.”
Embracing Your Identity Allows You To Level Up
What happens when you fully align your identity, values, and self-expression? “You level up,” Addie told me. “When I embraced the reality of being a gay woman, I saw first-hand very tangible results in my personal life in terms of happiness and in running performance with better, more consistent race results.”
This is a simple, yet radically transformative, way of operating. Addie explained that if she does not regularly take the time to analyze her core values, she begins to adopt behaviors from other people or influences, which leads to her acting and thinking inauthentically.
Am I Aligned to My Values?
So, how can each of us employ this leveling up process that Addie uses? As trail and ultra-runners, we already spend hours each week running and may naturally subject ourselves to life’s introspection. Why not go further and add these 3 fun and thought provoking questions to your next long run?
For me, I find that my answer to #3 is often the juggernaut in uncovering potential life-value misalignment. We can use our personal behaviors as a leading indicator of whether our values have truly become part of our identity and self expression.
Vulnerability Teaches Us to Embrace Everyone
Ultrarunning is special because it makes us inherently vulnerable. We ask others to help crew us and these people often see us at our lowest emotional states. Because there is so much support and vulnerability in trail running, I believe this allows our culture to embrace many kinds of expression.
I spoke to Coree Woltering, pro ultra-trail runner for The North Face, about how embracing himself led to others embracing him as well. Prior to the 2018 Western States Endurance Run, Coree was not expressively out to many people. Yet, for his first time at this marquee event, Coree wanted to celebrate his queerness and open up to the trail world by racing in a fun, colorful speedo bottom. “During and after the race, one of the biggest things people said to me was that ‘you were happy and smiling all day,’ and many said they loved my speedo,” said Coree.
For Coree, being light-hearted, yet vulnerable led many people in our trail community to embrace him. It also helped brush off the sting when people did not. “I know that I am not going to be everyone’s cup of coffee,” said Coree. “As much as I want to be liked by everyone or be that fun person, I know people aren’t always going to like me.” Yet, since Coree started embracing his self-expression, he has been more happy and, honestly, indifferent when people dismiss him and his speedos at races. “In this sport, coming from the Midwest, I didn’t know people of high caliber or how to approach brands. I thought I had to be nice and not ruffle feathers. Now, I feel like people allow me to be myself and that I can be the force in our sport.”
Speaking to both Addie and Coree taught me there is a lot to learn from the LGBTQ community. Our community explores self-discovery in such a unique way, and it can be a model for each of us as we strive to align our day-to-day lives to our values, find more happiness, and increase athletic performance. Let’s make this the year we all “level up.”